GUATEMALA CITY - The decisive steps taken against politicians caught in Guatemala's growing corruption scandal are signs that positive change could be coming to a poor country long pillaged by its elite, analysts said.
Former Vice President Roxana Baldetti was ordered to stand trial on Tuesday, while Guatemala's Supreme Court took the first step in allowing impeachment proceedings against President Otto Perez Molina in a fraud case that has pushed the country into political crisis and generated large protests.
Analysts said the actions provide hope that a strong attorney general backed by a now-mature and experienced international investigative commission can root out corruption.
“It's very exciting in some ways for those who forever have been deeply concerned about corruption and the elite political class that pillages the state,” said Eric Olson, a Central America expert at the Washington-based Mexico Institute. “They got their hands caught in the cookie jar this time, and it's pretty bad.”
Baldetti faces charges of conspiracy, customs fraud and bribery, based on allegations that she accepted $3.7 million in bribes as part of the customs scandal that forced her from office. The judge has yet to rule whether she will be jailed during the trial.
Prosecutors and the U.N. International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala requested the removal of the president's immunity based on allegations that he too is linked to the network of officials and individuals who received bribes from businessmen to evade import duties.
The U.N. impunity commission was set up in recent years to probe criminal networks because Guatemala's judicial system was seen as too weak and graft-prone to handle high-level investigations. It has since helped expose high-level corruption, fueling popular outrage and street protests that have put unprecedented pressure on Guatemala's political elite.
According to the commission, there are strong indications that the president was tied to the criminal ring known as “La Linea,” or “The Line,” the fraud operation allegedly led by Baldetti's aide, Juan Carlos Monzon Rojas, who is currently a fugitive.
Since Friday, five of Perez Molina's 13 cabinet ministers have resigned, plus eight vice-ministers, two secretaries and other government officials amid protests demanding that Perez Molina quit. Business and church groups have joined the calls for him to step down.
“He's in a very weak position, not only because of the scandal but for the resignation of his ministers,” said Gavin Strong, an analyst for Control Risks risk-management firm. “He knows it's going to be very difficult to fight the accusations. He's going to have to think about how he's going to stay out of jail.”
Still, the fledgling institutions that have made justice difficult to reach in the tiny country grappling with the vestiges of a 36-year civil war have a lot of work to do. The court system convicted former dictator Efrain Rios Montt of genocide charges in 2013, only to see the verdict quickly thrown out. A new Jan. 11 trial for him was set Tuesday, and he won't have to serve a sentence because he suffers from dementia.
With the unanimous Supreme Court ruling Tuesday, the congress now will vote whether to take away Perez Molina's immunity as a sitting president so he can be prosecuted and possibly removed from office.
An attempt several weeks ago to start impeachment proceedings based on a request by legislator Amilcar Pop was voted down.
Perez Molina rejected the possibility of resigning in a televised speech on Sunday, and he has denied involvement in the scandal.
In the case of the former vice president, prosecutors argued Tuesday that Baldetti was one of the main benefactors of the ring, in part based on some 88,000 wiretaps and documents revealing how the money was divided.
Her defense attorney, Mario Cano, called the charges political and said none of the wiretaps carried her voice.
Tensions are mounting ahead of the Sept. 6 elections, which are to elect Perez Molina's successor.
Protesters blocked intersections and pledged more demonstrations in coming days, some setting off fireworks to celebrate the two rulings against the country's two top politicians. Farm leader Carlos Barrientos said road blockades may be erected in about two dozen points around the country.
Some protesters are demanding the elections be postponed until the corruption scandal is resolved and Perez Molina resigns.